Album Review: IHSAHN Ámr
Since releasing his 2006 first solo LP, The Adversary, Norwegian multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Ihsahn (ex-Emperor) has become one of the most distinguished artists in modern symphonic black metal. Thus far, he’s worked with some truly talented contemporaries—such as Devin Townsend, Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth), Garm (Ulver), and even his brother-in-law, Einar Solberg (Leprous)—while blending his guttural roots with “everything from skewed art rock and avant-garde jazz to experimental electronica and dark ambient.” As a result, each of his prior six studio statements feel like a distinctive cog within a connected machine. His latest work, Ámr, is no exception. A bit heavier and less peculiar than its predecessor—2016’s masterful Arktis.—the record is a remarkably cohesive and dynamic venture that once again finds him vividly juxtaposing hellish and heavenly roles amidst ceaselessly charismatic instrumentation.
Expectedly, Ámr finds Ihsahn joined by drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen, whom Ihsahn says “can technically handle anything I throw at him… for him, it’s not about showing off; it’s always about relating to the vibe.” As for the styles and themes of the album, he reflects that he “wanted to change the wrapping this time,” meaning that he favored “analog synths and more in-your-face sounds” over orchestration. Interestingly, he says this approach was inspired by the “eerie synth soundtracks” of films like Halloween, plus “some contemporary R&B and hip-hop stuff with those deep, deep 808s.” He adds, “It’s just somehow darker than a lot of… black metal. It has a depth and an energy to it that I find captivating, so I wanted to explore those arrangement styles as well.” Indeed, Ámr features some of his most brutal and beautiful moments to date, delivered expertly and housed within scores and timbres that are innovative yet perfectly in tune with his past triumphs.
Speaking of Ihsahn’s trademark granular outcries, there are several selections on the LP that rank amongst his most relentlessly devilish. For instance, opener “Lend Me the Eyes of the Millennia” is a nearly six-minute voyage into aural damnation without any hope of angelic reprieve; rather, he maintains his vocal abrasions throughout, leaving the brilliantly subtle evolution of the music—complete with a repeating synth and guitar loops, in addition to blistering percussion and symphonic heft—to hypnotize and circumvent repetition. It’s a fascinatingly multilayered and meticulously constructed highlight for sure.
Elsewhere, tracks like “Arcana Imperii”—which features a guest guitar solo by Fredrik Åkesson (Opeth)—and “One Less Enemy” maintain that grandiose terror while also implementing some gentler melodic deviations. Both excel due to their fetching riffs and clean singing, whereas “In Rites of Passage” stands out because of its novel electronic breakdown halfway through, as well as its dual-layered six-string fervor (reminiscent of Mastodon). Naturally, closer “Wake” packs plenty of epic viciousness, too, with Andersen demonstrating some of his most varied and challenging work on the whole disc. It’s tracks like this that expose him as Ihsahn’s perfect creative partner.
Naturally, Ihsahn’s destructive yin needs its divine yang, and Ámr offers a few of his most angelic moments yet. In particular, “Sámr” packs the kind of straightforward structures and catchy hooks to make it satisfyingly nuanced yet rapidly accessible. (In a way, it’s as close as he’s ever come to creating a radio-friendly track, and that’s not a bad thing.) Later, “Where You Are Lost and I Belong” contrasts its ominous and dissonant core with one of his most serene and effective choruses; likewise, both “Marble Soul” and “Twin Black Angels” clash some really bleak rudiments with robust harmonies and delicate piano treatments, further exemplifying how his calmer side is just as emotional and magnificent as his madder penchants.
Ámr is easily one of Ihsahn’s greatest records. While its arrangements and textures are a bit more conventional and less avant-garde than in the past—which may disappoint some devotees—it results in an expressly focused and self-assured sequence. Like its predecessors, the LP feels essentially tied to the Ihsahn lineage while also achieving its own identity, and the ways in which he employs new elements amidst his tried-and-true formulas is highly commendable and captivating. Without a doubt, Ámr contains some of his best work to date, and it’s guaranteed to excite longtime fans and newcomers alike.